Revealing Characters through Dialogue

When we speak we reveal a little something of ourselves. Your characters should do the same. Dialogue is an effective way of demonstrating who your character is by revealing their personality through what they say and how they say it, but fictional dialogue is different from everyday real life.

Think of real life dialogue. It’s full of interruptions, breaks, repetition and superfluous and irrelevant information. Lots of ums and ahs and a bucket full of different slang words. Most everyday conversations are, in reality, pretty dull and mundane, but the difference with real life dialogue and fictional dialogue is that with fictional dialogue you have to cut out the mundane, the waffle and the boring bits and get to the very essence of your characters and story. Readers are not interested in what your character had for dinner last Thursday, or that the garden needs doing, or the car needs washing…

Readers want information, immediacy and action.

Dialogue changes the flow of the narrative; it increases pace and gives the narrative a sense of immediacy. It provides texture and depth and provides a deeper insight into the character. The reader is able to interpret the kind of people your characters are through their dialogue and therefore determine what sort of personalities they have. This in turn helps them empathise with your characters.

There are three important functions of dialogue:

• Move the story forward.
• Reveal the character.
• Impart important information.

Readers want to know about the traits and behaviour of characters. They want to know how your characters tick. Revealing character through dialogue and action are two important literary techniques that you can use to enhance the narrative. This means letting the reader know your characters’ personalities and how they act and interact with other characters and their environment. This means active and reactive conversations.

Dialogue is also a good way of showing mood and emotion, tone and accent. A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in the same manner, perhaps even when faced with a dramatic, pressurized situation. Angry or agitated characters will shout or stumble over words, speak in staccato, sometimes high-pitched sentences. Impatient characters have a tendency to interrupt, or change the conversation mid-flow. There is no hard or fast rule on this, but it is based more on observation of real people’s behaviour.

Dialogue is also engineered to impart information about the plot and to provide necessary information to your reader. It’s an important way to show, not tell your reader what’s happening, or might happen – perhaps a big event in the story, a turning point in the plot or a significant event that you want to hint towards to tease the reader.

Hinting of what might happen further in the story is known as subtext. Good use of dialogue should never blatantly spell out what a scene is about, it should be through use of suggestion. This is how subtext works. It’s something that becomes understood by the reader in a subconscious way.

Subtext can refer to the thoughts and motives of characters, as well as their actions and dialogue. There are always subtle meanings brewing behind what your characters do, say and think.

Here’s an example, an excerpt taken from my novel. It’s a dialogue between the protagonist Alex, and one of the other characters, DCI Roscoe, the man determined to pin the murder of her husband and son on her:

Roscoe eased back in his chair; watched her staring back at him. ‘Other than your arguments about the money your husband made, did you ever resent his success?’

‘No I didn’t. What do you take me for?’

‘Did you resent him being away from the home so much?’

A terrible noise began to fill her head, tumbling and turning like a drum full of metal, but it was a while before she realised it was her own silence. She eyed him, shrank back.

‘Well, did you?’ Roscoe asked, coming forward, his shadow threatening.

Alex expelled a short breath. ‘No, now you’re just wasting my time. Why don’t we both get to the point?’ The resonance in her voice was surly now; she was allowing the agitation to creep in. ‘You want to know whether I killed my husband, right?’

They were playing seesaw; it was Roscoe’s turn to sit back again. ‘Sure, I’d like to know. Who did you pay to do it?’

Something florid bristled in her eyes; a dark rancour shrouded her skin like a malignant shadow. Her eyes became wide. ‘I had no reason to kill my husband, or my child. Not for money, not for gain, not for anything this world could ever offer me...’

The above extract does three things:

It reveals character – from the implied tone of voice it’s easy for the reader to see that Alex is becoming agitated with the questioning, added to that some elements of description to underscore these feelings. It reveals Alex to be a no nonsense kind of person. Roscoe, on the other hand, is impatient and gruff.

The scene also imparts information about who may have killed Alex’s husband and son. Was she responsible, or someone else?

The third element is the scene as a whole - it moves the story forward. How? There is ample opportunity within the scene to let both characters waffle on and become boring, however, with a tight scene it has to be pruned right back to pertinent information, just enough to keep the momentum. There is a hint of revelation, just enough to stir curiosity.

Lastly there is subtext. During the scene both characters’ movements are shown to be like a seesaw, back and forth, each moving forward as though to dominate, then sitting back as though momentarily defeated. This shows how the conversation is evolving. It’s very subtle and the reader should be able pick up on these nuances.

Writing dialogue isn’t always easy, especially if you have to be prudent to keep everything tight. Always pay attention to dialogue to ensure it follows the three basic elements above. Be strict – cut out unnecessary waffle.

Introducing action into key scenes is another way writers use to move the narrative forward and provides underlying meaning to a story in a slightly different way to dialogue. Every story needs action and conflict, because without it you have no story, and by writing about the behaviour of your characters you give the reader the chance to form opinions about them, and find out about their personalities. How your characters conduct themselves is another way of revealing character through action. Again, it’s all about active and reactive.

Problems to overcome with dialogue

Everything in fiction is about balance. When you read back what you’ve written, sometimes you might find the dialogue sounds unnatural or stilted. The best thing to do is to read your dialogue out loud. This will show you where the problems lie, by listening to how it actually sounds and you can re-write where needed to improve the dialogue and make it sound more realistic.

Another problem is dialogue which reflects the mundane. This means the conversations are boring and slowing down the story. This usually happens when your characters are talking about unimportant, irrelevant stuff. It’s like listening to two people on the bus talking about what to have for dinner. Cut out the waffle and the mundane and get to the heart of what your character’s need to say - their conversations should move the plot forward, or reveal something important about the characters and the situation yet to come.

Remember not to have huge chunks of speech for the reader to wade through. Vary speech lengths; keep it interesting for the reader. It’s easy to get carried away with dialogue, but it you need to keep it in check.

Make sure your dialogue is consistent – keep in character when constructing dialogue between different people. The protagonist’s personality and speech will be vastly different from the antagonist and other characters. You must keep in character throughout the story, because the moment you slip out of character or do something uncharacteristic the reader notice immediately.

The best rule of thumb when reading through what you’ve written? If it doesn’t sound right, it invariably isn’t.

Next week: How to edit effectively


  1. But desn't saying "they were playing seesaw" defeat the purpose of subtext? The sense that it is "like a seesaw" is a feeling the reader should come to on their own, through use of your descriptions and imagery of back and forth movement.

  2. I understand what you say, however the scene as a whole is not just about the subtext, but also the kinesthetic imagery; the sense of such movement.

    Unfortunately, it is only an excerpt of a longer scene, so you don't get the full effect of it. I simply used it as a basic example, so it's a valid point, but not in terms of the whole.

  3. Thanks Cate. Great article. I really like your website, too!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Chapter & Novel Lengths

What Makes a Story Dark?

Cadence in Writing